Sunday, June 10, 2012

Folly Beach, SC: Bowens Island Oysters

I am an unabashed oyster floozy. Raw, fried, grilled, served in stew, Rockefeller, po' boy, oyster dressing...I am crazy about all preparations and my only complaint is that I am usually left wanting more. A dozen raw oysters are simply a tease. Admittedly,  I planned my latest vacation to the Charleston area after hearing from friend and food documentarian, Joe York, about an all-you-can-eat oyster shack on Folly Beach just outside Charleston. In some rare, fortuitous instance of karma, we visited Bowens Island Restaurant, situated out on a stunning marsh coastline, on what we would soon learn was the very last day of oyster season.

Piles of empty oyster shells line the parking lot next to the rustic fish camp on stilts. After securing a scenic table on the deck, we joined the line at the no-frills bar, to order our catch. Barely hiding my enthusiasm, I ordered the all-you-can eat oyster plate, only to have my dreams dashed. It was then that I was informed it was the last day of oyster season and because of that, they were only offering single servings. In a disgruntled daze, I was handed a well loved dish towel and knife and told to take a ticket downstairs to the oyster guy. 

Downstairs meant descending to ground level, below the shack, where, in an odd corner of the open basement, I found the oyster dude. Reminding me of a San Francisco bike courier with his gruff, yet hipster vibe, he took my number, before dumping a huge bag of oysters onto a metal table to wash and select for the steamer cage. He yelled "four and a half minutes" over his shoulder, in my direction, before walking away to check his iPhone. Weirdly, despite the grim location and the coarse service, or perhaps because of it, my spirits were rising rapidly.  Moments later a heaping bushel of oysters were dumped onto a cafeteria tray and I was sent, elated, on my way.

After navigating two flights of steps, with my hands occupied by the heavily laden tray and a sundress blowing suggestively in the strong sea breeze, the real fun began. No side dishes or accouterments were necessary.  When easily pried open, these oysters, bathed plumply in briny sea water, proved naked is better. Similar to raw, but with a little more texture, these steamed oysters were juicy and tender. Fresh off the boat, the clusters included large, meaty shells, baby seedlings, and all sizes in between, sometimes eight or more per cluster, many of which were camouflaged by the rocky exteriors, adding a scavenger hunt feel to the process. Two hours later, fingers shrivelled from the sea water and a few minor shell scrapes, despite the towel, I finished the last mollusk, completely satiated.

Others may look forward to SEC football or the World Series, but for me, I will take two hours of wrestling oysters, any day.  Thank heavens I didn't order the bottomless tray, although I am not saying I won't in the future!

Bowen's Island Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Charleston, SC: Two Boroughs Larder

It took mere minutes to fall in love with the city of Charleston, South Carolina. The colonial houses, stone streets, scenic bay, bird-filled marshes all tugged at my heart strings, as they were reminiscent of my childhood on the New England coast. Coupled with the nostalgia were all things southern that make me incredibly happy: palm trees, moss draped gardens, southern hospitality, boutiques filled with colorful, classy attire, soulful southern chefs, and a dewy humidity that is strangely addictive.

In typical fashion, our vacation rituals in this charming city quickly evolved into long walks, prohibition era cocktails and scintillatingly good food. After a day spent sleuthing and photographing the city, it was exciting to dress up and start the night in the cool vibe of The Gin Joint, where the motto was, "Drink Proper. Speak Easy." Sultry booths, funky lighting and cabinets made of urban chain link, set the tone for classic Americana libations.

The smoked maple old fashioned, made with bonded rye whiskey and black walnut bitters, served with one crystal clear sphere of ice, was sexy looking, smooth, and smoky on the pallet. The hint of black walnut bitters added what reminded me of a pecan pie undertone and a spicy bouquet on the nose. While the old fashioned oozed of 1950's seduction and made you want to settle deeper into the booth, the Jalisco Pharmacy was fresh and exciting, almost encouraging you to call all of your friends for a deck party. Tequila mixed with lemon, ginger, honey and mezcal, created a nuanced and refreshing drink, that will no doubt become a summer classic.

The Gin Joint
Since I mentioned rituals, I will confess that we started a second night at The Gin Joint, that time trying the Tequila old fashioned and a bartender's choice. The old fashioned was made with smoky anejo tequila, agave nectar, and grapefruit bitters, which was a delightfully light version of the more traditional whiskey recipe. The bartender's choice included rye whiskey, averno amero (a spirit based herbal digestive), and angostura bitters. It was deep and spicy, served elegantly straight-up in an old fashioned champagne glass.

Pickled Shrimp
Fortunately the bartender poured generously and therefore after one drink, we pried ourselves out of the place where we now considered ourselves vacation regulars, and took to the streets for a walk across town to our new favorite dinner spot, Two Boroughs Larder. Located on the outskirts of The College of Charleston, tucked into a little nondescript side street, the restaurant has a comfortableness about it that makes you feel like you could eat there every night, and yet it still remains a treat. Bare-bulb chandeliers, an open kitchen, pantry shelving, and a farm-to-table, daily-changing menu, all lend a European, neighborhood air that is completely hip, while not trying hard at all.

Ravenous after a long walk, we wasted no time ordering the pickled shrimp salad as a starter. Served in an unassuming jelly jar, it was one of the most flavorful, fresh dishes I have ever consumed; cold, lightly pickled shrimp were layered generously with, chick peas, cippolini onions, fennel, and colorful baby sorrel sprouts all smothered in a tangy dressing making for a crunchy forkful and a fight for the last bite.

Lamb Belly
Brussels Sprouts
Bordeaux was served in a juice glass and arrived as a perfect accompaniment to the cumin scented lamb belly. Juicy chocolate cherry tomatoes, pine nuts and salty roasted cerignola olives, balanced the rich and tender lamb. Next arrived the crispy veal sweetbreads, glazed with a caper, shallot and chili sauce and tossed with roasted cauliflower, they possessed the perfect chewy, satisfying texture. The side of chili and lime Brussels sprouts were roasted to caramelized perfection. Equally satisfying was the dish of sweet roasted beets, dusted lightly with grated ricotta salata cheese.

For dessert we could not resist the rice pudding. Served warm, topped with crunchy oats, it was loose, barely sweet, a little al dente and seemed completely made to order just for us.

Daily Salad
So enthralled were we with this local haunt, that the next night, when we were craving a more casual dinner, we found ourselves drawn back to Two Boroughs, despite the seemingly infinite number of options in this food rich city. This time we started with the daily salad, consisting of chilled, crisp yellow wax beans, Italian flat beans, parsley, paper thin slices of baby radish and creamy buffalo mozzarella all tossed in a champagne vinaigrette with agrumato olive oil. Made with quality ingredients, this dish proves that simple is often better.

Butcher's Sandwich
Crispy New Potatoes
The butcher's sandwich was the perfect cross between an Italian sub and a Vietnamese bahn mi, as it included salami toscana, prosciutto, pecorino cheese and nduja, a homemade spreadable salami, with pickled carrots, radish and herbs, all on a baguette. The side of crispy new potatoes with shredded brisket and shallot confit, were outlandishly divine and a salacious treat next to the healthier chili braised kale with white anchovies.


Finally, the dish that without question won the "best of the vacation week," and at a bargain price, was the bowl-o-noodle. Shredded, crispy Keegan Filion pork, a soft boiled farm egg, spicy and crunchy kimchi, sesame greens, and pickled wild mushrooms, nestled on noodles in a comforting pork broth. The egg, when split open, infused the broth with yolk making a thick, rich texture that coated the tongue.  Each bite was different from the last, the flavors layering and the textures dancing.

While we should have ended on that note of nirvana, I am glad we pushed through to experience the chocolate budino. A rich chocolate cold pot de creme type base was covered in chopped pistachios, sea salt and smothered in a layer of olive oil. The rather plain look of the dish belied the brilliant flavor and texture; sweet and salt played off one another while the pistachios crunched and the olive oil coated everything on the palette giving it a feeling of elegance. This dish is everything you love about chocolate covered pretzels, but dressed up in a ball gown. Mercy!

There was not near enough time to explore all that Charleston has to offer. While I eagerly look forward to future trips to the city and new rituals, I will work on perfecting my version of the Jalisco Pharmacy back at home this summer.
Two Boroughs Larder on Urbanspoon